19 September 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 625
Genetic Twists of Fate
Published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press
ISBN-10: 026201470X, ISBN-13: 978-0262014700
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News reports that researchers have linked a certain gene to a disease, condition or trait appear almost daily. The most recent include multiple sclerosis, ovarian cancer, schizophrenia and even intelligence. Along with the vastly reduced cost of DNA sequencing technology, this is leading to what the authors of Genetic Twists of Fate call a 'genetic revolution, one that will affect all of us in a personal way, every day'.
Professor Stanley Fields and Professor Mark Johnston envision a future where personal genomics, with its SNP-reading technology and single-gene testing, will seem primitive. Every parent will be presented with their newborn's complete DNA code, footprints and APGAR score.
Both authors are accomplished human geneticists who passionately believe genetics research is important for health and scientific advances, and self-empowerment. In their book, they aim to help us to make sense of basic questions about genetics and the increasingly influential role they play in our everyday lives.
They do this by telling well-chosen stories of people whose lives have been affected by a small, but significant, change in their DNA. The aim of these chapters is to provide a mixture of engaging life and well-known stories from the history of science with an explanation of the key underlying genetic concepts.
For example, they tell the story of the Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth who lost her career and life to Alzheimer's Disease and the mountain-climbing brothers with a one-in-two chance of developing Huntington's Disease. Another story is about the mother who refused to give up hope of understanding the cause of her child's failure to mentally and physically develop, which later turned out to be phenylketonuria.
While explaining the genetic concepts in a clear and interesting fashion, they perhaps fall into a common trap when attempting to appeal to a general audience. They assume that science, facts and complicated information overwhelm or bore the lay audience and they need to engage the reader by over-appealing to analogies, metaphors and emotive life stories.
At points, this creates a tenuous link with the scientific concepts they are trying to explain. For example, in the first chapter, the authors set out the history of Google only to analogise its workers with the organisational spirit of the cells in the human body. Similarly, in explaining cell function, the book refers to the human body as an enormous hotel with trillions of rooms (cells), connected by Internet and phone (neurons) and controlled by a central processing system (brain).
Some of the personal stories also seemed to add little to the scientific discussion. The tragic story of Rita Hayworth's decline threw little light on the underlying genetic factors associated with Alzheimer's, nor did the unhappy story of the O'Brien family, inflicted with Huntington's. But they did sometimes provide a useful understanding of the social and environmental expression of the diseases, conditions and traits covered.
The promising opening chapters discuss the growing and diverse industry of personal genomics. So it is perhaps disappointing that subsequent chapters focus on the more straight-forward Mendelian conditions that have dominated mainstream literature on genetics until recently. In focusing on providing an easy-to-read, understandable text for the lay person, the book fails to account for and critique the existing and growing multi-disciplinary literature.
But these are minor criticisms of a well-thought out and engaging read. As Professor Brian Cox said in a recent television interview, it is important that science remains an important part of popular culture. This book presents what many view as the science of life in an approachable and readable manner that should encourage the lay reader to begin thinking about the implications of genetics in their day-to-day life.
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